On this day more than 90 years ago, they stopped the slaughter. But in the peace that they eventually reduced to a pause, they sowed the seeds of the next cataclysm. As we always do.
Today I remember my father, who served more than 30 years and in three wars, and who saw combat in two of them. He was, officially, a hero, decorated. He was deservedly admired. But he was also human, deeply flawed. He was not the monument or the starched-uniform photograph flashed before us during Veterans Day commemorations. His motives for being in the military were mixed. I think that as a Black man, he found in the Army a semi-refuge from the deeply racist society of his times. He once told me that he also wanted to escape the Depression-era, rural coal-mining community he came from, and see the wider world. I don’t say this to diminish him; I’m proud of his accomplishments. I say it to humanize him, to keep him a real man in my memory and in the image of him that I leave my children. I want to draw him sharp and clear and whole—good and bad.
Sometimes I think we deify veterans to soothe the guilt of those of us who avoided the military. Sometimes it allows us to paper over the reality that not all our wars have been noble. If we can make our veterans perfect, and identify ourselves with them—make them an extension of us—then surely we are noble and uncomplainingly self-sacrificing too. But veterans aren’t perfect, and we cannot make ourselves perfect through them; they share the same flaws and conflicts that run through the rest of us, however much we might want to pretend otherwise.
You might think that recollecting the sacrifice, suffering, and death of so many would steel our resolve to stop it. But you would be wrong. We tell ourselves that we have no choice, that others force us into these acts. But do we ever ask why so much of our resolve and ingenuity rise to the surface only when we’re in the act of slaughtering others? Why so unwilling to sacrifice to educate each other’s children, to ensure that the sick are cared for? Why so unwilling to sacrifice so that no one sleeps in a cardboard box on the sidewalk, so that those in mental anguish find solace? Are these less dire crises? Is their threat less morally significant?
So we seem to believe.
They lie in cemeteries, in neat rows carpeted by machine-clipped grass. They lie, found and unfound, in shifted sands and abandoned earth where roots have grown wild and wildflowers taken root. Today, I want peace for them. But I dread this day because I have grown war weary, waiting for an armistice and waiting for peace. Peace for the all the dead, and for the living. Peace to replace the tumult in our hearts.
But peace requires more than we have given. What use is peace with honor that doesn’t also insist on peace with honesty? That peace demands that we face ourselves. It demands that we consider the possibility that so many veterans struggle to share the brutality of their experiences because they know it would complicate the kind of story we want to hear. Because only after we see ourselves in reality’s hard light can we look directly into the faces of the veterans, accept all they have done in our name, and come to terms of peace together.